- The Washington Times - Monday, March 14, 2005

Novelist and food writer Laurie Colwin recounted being at a cocktail party when a literary type began to speak of Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina.” The tale was so entrancing, the detail so vivid, that she pulled the book off the host’s shelf, left the party and went home and read it, only to discover that not only was it a wonderful story, but that it was filled with tales of fabulous dinner parties.

These are among the great things about good literature: It exercises the mind as well as the taste buds. It stays alive through the years because the characters involve themselves in the spectacular and in commonplace activities, such as falling in love, arguing with their in-laws, paying their taxes and eating.

Particularly in late winter, when we are sick of darkness and chill, what better way to feed our brains than to hunker down in front of a roaring fire and gorge on the edible fruits of fine writing, from Marcel Proust to Virginia Woolf to Ernest Hemingway to Wallace Stegner?

Whether we choose to read cookbooks or novels filled with food, the result will be the same. We will come away wanting to re-create the author’s mouthwatering dishes, be they delicate tea biscuits evocative of things past; a rich Provencal beef stew redolent of bay leaves, wine and Woolfian perfection; or a pre-dawn cup of Indian tea, richly scented with the sweet affection of a decades-long friendship.

In “Crossing to Safety,” Mr. Stegner’s compelling tale of a 40-year alliance between two couples that carries them from the Depression into the self-indulgent ‘70s, Larry and Sally Morgan recall an early morning breakfast shared while traveling in India with best friends, the Langs, nearly half a century before.

The cold of winter mornings is an ideal time to enjoy what was, during the time of the Raj, called “chota hazri.” Traditionally served before 6 a.m., it consisted of a hot cup of aromatic Darjeeling tea served with assorted dried fruits, good toast and a thick swipe of lemon curd. There is no more perfect way to mark our day, even if it’s 11 p.m.

Even Bree Van De Kamp, the obsessive character on television’s “Desperate Housewives,” couldn’t have pulled together as marvelous a stew as Mildred Ramsay’s in Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse.” In that story, Mildred, a painfully faultless mother of eight, attempts to control the vast and heavily cloaked idiosyncrasies of her life.

After serving her incomparable boeuf en daube, “with its shiny walls and its confusion of savoury brown and yellow meats and its bay leaf and its wines,” the members of her dinner party assure her, “It’s a triumph.” And in the depression of winter, as the winds blow and the cold envelops us, it is. For the sake of taste and tradition, put the lid on the pot and don’t peek.

Should we prefer time for a couple in front of the fire, consider, as M.F.K. Fisher said, the oyster, immortalized by many but described incomparably by the young Ernest Hemingway in “A Moveable Feast,” his posthumously published memoir of a youthfully exuberant life in 1920s Paris.

As Hemingway wrote, it was a time when a franc bought a great bottle of wine and a dozen oysters “with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”

Enjoy them fresh, cold, plain or with a classic mignonette sauce, but always with a close friend. Then settle in to read Mr. Hemingway’s firsthand account of lunching with Gertrude Stein, boxing with Ezra Pound, and carousing with F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald a few years before “Tender Is the Night” began to simmer in the author’s mind.

The powers of smell and taste can send me hurtling back to my grandmother’s kitchen in 1960s New York in the same way a single bite of the petite, lemony, shell-shaped French biscuit, the madeleine, sent Marcel Proust careening headlong into his past, resulting in his monolithic “Remembrance of Things Past,” now often translated as “In Search of Lost Time.”

A sure bet if winter is a long one: Consider settling in with at least the first three parts of this voluminous masterpiece and traveling to Proust’s young life, beginning with “Swann’s Way,” in which the author peers through the microscope of his memory at the extravagances of his youth. Go ahead, bake the madeleines, pour a small glass of vin santo, and praise the culinary and literary excesses of Proustian genius.

Winter is a wonderful time for cooking and a time for reacquainting oneself with delicious literature. Why not do both?

Boeuf en daube

Referring to both the dish and the daubiere, the pot in which it is traditionally prepared, boeuf en daube is a luscious, classic red-wine-based beef stew redolent of onion, thyme and bay leaf.

Frozen pearl onions make this perfect slow-food stew a snap to make while we’re curled up in front of the fire. Served atop buttered egg noodles tossed with fresh parsley, it is even more delicious the second day — and it freezes beautifully.

2 pounds stew beef, cut in 1½-inch cubes

2 tablespoons flour

1 teaspoon salt

1½ tablespoons unsalted butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

½ cup pancetta (or bacon), cut in 1/4-inch pieces

1 cup frozen whole, peeled pearl onions, defrosted

2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 1½-inch chunks

2 celery stalks, cut into 1½-inch chunks

1 28-ounce can crushed Italian-style tomatoes

1 bottle dry red wine, preferably pinot noir

Bouquet garni (see note)

3/4 cup peas, fresh or frozen

Salt and pepper

Warm bread, buttered egg noodles or boiled new potatoes tossed with parsley

Toss beef with flour and salt in a large resealable plastic bag until beef is coated with flour. Remove from bag and set beef aside.

In a large heavy stew pot (preferably enamel over cast iron) set over medium heat, melt butter and oil together. When they are rippling but not smoking, add pancetta; saute until it has rendered its fat. Remove pancetta with a slotted spoon and set aside.

Add beef to pot and brown well on all sides, working in batches, if necessary. Add onion, carrots and celery to pot; toss to combine well; and cook for about 8 minutes, until carrots have brightened.

Pour tomatoes and wine into pot, then stir and bring to a boil for 2 minutes. Immediately reduce heat; add bouquet garni and reserved pancetta; cover; and simmer for 2½ hours, until sauce has thickened and meat is tender, adding a little water if needed to keep moist.

Remove cover, then add peas and continue to simmer, uncovered, for another 30 minutes, adding a little water, if necessary, to keep moist. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and serve in warm bowls with sides of warm bread, buttered egg noodles or boiled new potatoes tossed with parsley. Makes 6 servings.

Note: To make a bouquet garni, tie the following together with kitchen twine: 3 stalks fresh flat-leaf parsley, 1 sprig fresh thyme and 1 bay leaf.

Madeleines

Tender, moist and shell-shaped, this biscuit, which dates to the 18th century, is perfect for teatime or as a light dessert with a glass of vin santo. Modernists dip the cooling cookie into melted semisweet chocolate or sprinkle it with coconut. I prefer it the old-fashioned way: plain, simple and scented with lemon.

This recipe, adapted from British author Elizabeth Luard’s “Classic French Cooking,” is a study in convention. True, you’ll need to purchase madeleine molds, but the result will be worth it.

Unsalted butter or nonstick cooking spray for greasing madeleine mold

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened

1 cup superfine sugar

13/4 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

6 eggs

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Generously grease madeleine molds; set them aside.

In a medium-size bowl, beat together softened butter and sugar using a stand mixer, a wooden spoon or a whisk until mixture is lemon-colored.

In a small bowl, using a pastry blender or a fork, combine flour and baking powder; set aside.

Break each egg, one by one, into butter-sugar mixture, and blend thoroughly before adding the next egg. Add flour mixture and lemon juice, and combine well.

Drop teaspoons of batter into madeleine impressions, and carefully transfer pan to oven. Bake in preheated 400-degree oven for about 10 minutes, or until madeleines have risen slightly and are browned. Cool madeleines on a pastry rack and store in an airtight container. Makes about 30 madeleines.

Croque monsieur

Deeply satisfying and elegant in its simplicity, this delicious hot sandwich, which can be made in larger quantities and then cut into hors d’oeuvre-size pieces, stands head and shoulders above the average version because the cheese is melted together with wine (or sometimes brandy) before the sandwich’s assembly.

If you can’t find Gruyere or Comte, substitute domestic or imported fontina. Topped with a fried egg, the sandwich becomes a croque madame and is served all over Europe, from bistros to railway stations.

8 ounces Gruyere or Comte cheese, cubed

1/4 cup dry white wine

1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided

8 1/4-inch-thick slices of good-quality white bread, crusts removed

8 thin slices of ham

In a double boiler set over simmering (not boiling) water, melt cheese and wine together and blend in nutmeg.

While the cheese is melting, place half the butter in a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat and fry each of the eight pieces of bread on both sides until golden. Set aside and keep warm.

Carefully spread cheese-wine mixture on both sides of all eight bread slices, and top four of the slices with two slices of ham each.

Melt remaining butter in skillet, close the sandwiches by topping ham-covered bread slices with remaining four bread slices, and fry sandwiches for a few seconds on both sides, until cheese on the outside is golden and bubbling. Serve hot. Makes 4 servings.


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